We have liftoff! Bob Bouchard and Lou Bélanger are in orbit! Six months after launching their first dancehall fusion album under their project named Di Astronauts, the two prolific producers from Québec City are charting their course, in the hope that their songs will circle the globe. First the FrancoFolies, then the Festival d’été de Québec, and tomorrow… the whole universe!

But wait… Who exactly are Di Astronauts? Hunched over a speakerphone in their hotel room in Saskatoon, where they’re slated to accompany singer Marième , the three musicians talk over each other: Bouchard and Bélanger – veterans of Québec City’s rap/groove scene, and members of the Movèzerbe and CEA collectives – as well as Papa T, Québec City’s most well-known Jamaican.

Di Astronauts

Di Astronauts singers at FEQ 2017. Left to right: Dah Yana, Marième, Sabrina Sabotage (Photo: Marième)

“A polymorphous collective? I guess that’s pretty much it,” says Bouchard, adding that this first album, Lova Notes & Outta Space Poems, also features King Abid, Sabrina Sabotage and Marième. A bona fide tribe, as it were.

“Di Astronauts is our lab,” says Bélanger. “It’s our excuse for doing what we’d been meaning to do for a long time, now.” Which is to say, an agile mix of French, English, Patois and Arabic pop (thanks, King Abid!) in a dancehall and Jamaican new roots style, with accessible electronica sauce. This tasty, multi-chef melting pot is cohesive despite, or thanks to, the wide variety of musical ingredients that go into it.

“We love the idea of a collective project,” says beat-maker Bouchard. “Stuff like Major Lazer or Bran Van 3000 – you have no idea how big fans we are of Bran Van! That’s the concept: a core of in-house producers, who’ve given themselves the leeway to invite anyone to sing along. It’s a process that we’re comfortable with, the whole notion of giving a project a global musical direction, while incorporating the talent of a multitude of artists who bring their own flavour to the songs.”

Their project might’ve been lifted straight from Major Lazer, but it’s still quite bold for the Québec music scene. Reggae and dancehall aren’t exactly staples of popular music in the province, except on the rare occasion where a pop artist will dip a toe in that relatively exotic pool. Making what’s essentially an entire album of that sound – and managing to make it so catchy – is a tour de force that can only be fuelled by true passion.

“Like everyone else, we liked reggae after hearing albums by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh or even Gainsbourg,” says Bob Bouchard. “Marième is a huge reggae fan, and she got us to explore more of it. We were more attuned to hip-hop, through contact with the guys from Alaclair, Movèzerbe, etc. Then, as the rap scene grew whiter and more nihilistic, we realized that reggae was what we identified more with, the whole idea of changing the world together through a positive message… Which is what we initially liked about rap, in the end.

Di Astronauts

Di Astronauts singers at Francofolies 2017. Left to right: King Abid, Papa T. (Photo: Mathieu)

“But props need to be given where they’re due: Québec City’s ‘Captain of Reggae’ is King Abid. When he got here, he wanted to create a reggae scene.” And he pulled it off: there are now several community and college radio stations with dancehall-reggae themed shows, as well as several events organized around the genre. As Bob says, “there aren’t that many people supporting the reggae scene in Québec City, but those that love it really fucking love it!

We love reggae and we play it in a very contemporary way. We try to avoid playing in a nostalgic or ‘tourist-y’ way. And now, since music is being consumed through streaming platforms, our strategy is to create music that can travel and acting accordingly, such as going to Jamaica with Papa T to shoot our video and build relationships with local singers.”

Di Astronauts’s trick is to be active on all fronts: radio, thanks to an electro-pop ditty, “Feelin’ Better,” sung by Sabrina Sabotage on one hand, and on the other, streaming platforms and YouTube with the sunny dancehall grooves. Time and time again, the two studio rats will come up with a good groove, then shop it around to various vocalists so that it can see the sunshine.

“To us, it’s a long-haul project,” says Bélanger. “It allows us to launch singles whenever we want, EPs, videos, but always with that collaborative approach. Right now, we’re thinking about an all-female project that would be called Di Astronettess. We also plan on an all-French project, simply because we’re signed to Coyote Records. We believe that Di Astronauts is a platform which can easily carry us over the next five to ten years. It can be very poppy, but it’s very cohesive, specific, niche. It affords us that kind of freedom.”

Oakville’s Allie Hughes built considerable buzz during her formative years in Toronto, as a must-see act who balanced performance art and theatrical sensibilities with a knack for infectious, melodic pop.

But it wasn’t until Hughes left for Los Angeles and transformed herself into Allie X that her career truly took off. Since 2014, she’s issued the EP CollXtion 1 – most prominently remembered for the song “Catch,” with its hip, stylish video, and for earning sumptuous praise from Katy Perry. Her new album CollXtion II is as beguiling a collection of synth-pop perfection as you’ll find this side of Ellie Goulding.

The buzz is still out there, but it’s now global. “It really wasn’t working in Toronto, partly because I didn’t have my sound figured out,” says X over lunch at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel, her waist-length brunette mane draped over her shoulders as she tucks into a plate of scrambled eggs with thick slices of avocado on the side.

“I was friends with a lot of indie, experimental rock/electronic musicians, really talented folks, and I was always really inspired. What I didn’t really realize is that I was making pop music. I thought that I was sort of in the ‘these are all my cool friends’ camp, and I was trying to do something in that niche. I was always listening to artists on Pitchfork. I was friends with Born Ruffians, Tokyo Police Club, Broken Social Scene. But with the music I was making, nothing was happening. And what I sort of realized after awhile was, ‘You’re making pop music. Why don’t you just go for it?’”

X, who was part of the inaugural Slaight Family Music Centre residency at The Canadian Film Centre in 2012, used the connections she made there to finance a ticket to L.A. After meeting with such prolific score maestros as Academy Award winner Mychael Danna and “a bunch of his friends who are successful composers,” Allie X got permission to extend her stay for a week and set about hustling meetings. Eventually, she signed a publishing deal with Prescription Songs, overseen by Grammy-nominated and JUNO-winning producer, professional songwriter, and SOCAN member Henry “Cirkut” Walter (who co-wrote and co-produced eight songs on The Weeknd’s Starboy album, and with/for Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, One Direction, Kesha, and Miley Cyrus, among others).

“When I got there, all of a sudden stuff just started working,” recalls Allie X, who has placed a song in the upcoming film Sierra Burgess is A Loser. “I was being put into rooms with the right people for the kind of music I was writing.”

“Music’s been the thing that has given me a voice… I don’t know where I’d be without music.”

What does the “X” in Allie X signify?
“X equals the possibility of anything. It also represents anonymity. So for me, adopting the ‘X’ into my name was about wiping the slate clean and defining my own truth from scratch. It gives you permission to be in-between and figure things out.”

Hughes also signed to former Sony executive Nick Gatfield’s Twin Music label in time for CollXtion II, but before she finished the album, she worked with gay YouTube icon Troye Sivan on his first album Blue Neighbourhood, placing five co-writes on the project, including his breakthrough Top 30 Billboard hit, “Youth” (which has to date earned more than 75 million YouTube views).

“That was so positive; I made some money,” laughs X. “Troy’s, like, a really cool guy.  Out of all these young artists I’ve worked with in L.A., he has the most artistry behind what he’s doing. He’s so specific about what he wants. And we weren’t approaching those sessions from a radio-single perspective. It was more like, ‘Let’s just hang out and write about your life and how we relate to it.’ It was super-positive and then it did so well. We’re working on new stuff for him right now.”

X is looking to repeat the Sivan success story with her own album, especially now that she’s settled on a synth-heavy sound. She first started on piano when she was a child. “My grandparents gave us a piano and my Mom was, like, ‘Now you have to take piano lessons,’” says X, who’s gifted with long, slender fingers. Initially, she resisted because she wanted only to sing instead. “And much to my surprise – and I was a stubborn kid, always trying to prove that I was right – I loved piano. And I continued to play, all the way from Grade 4, when I started, to the end of high school.

“It’s kind of my instrument, one that I know my way around,” X continues. “In my mid-20s, I got into synthesis, and started playing around on the Juno and the Prophet keyboards, and learned about frequency and all the different effects. I got really into that… That’s when I really started to find my sound. And also when I started to learn Ableton [production software] and learn how to produce. That was the turning point, where the sound we now hear for Allie X started to come.”

The 10 songs on CollXtion II are all co-writes, as X teamed up with Brett McLaughlin, a.k.a. Leland (Capital Cities, Hilary Duff), Mathieu Jomphe Lépine, a.k.a. Billboard, and a host of other individuals.  The songs that comprise the album – “Paper Love,” with its catchy whistle motif; “That’s So Us,” with its chugging synth-bass line: and “Lifted,” with its reggae feel, to name a few – demonstrate a sturdy sonic architecture that reveals more depth with each listen.

It’s a signature sound that’s earned Allie X more than 12 million streams of eight songs on Spotify alone. She says melodies come naturally to her, but words can take awhile. “I’m a slow lyricist, it takes me a long time,” she says. “If I’m doing lyrics by myself, it’s kind of abstract. I say words that sound right, and then I kind of figure out what the hell I’m talking about!”

Allie X’s career advice
“Persistence. Don’t stop. It’s all about connecting the dots. I knew I could get to this point 10 years ago… even though nobody else knew it. I didn’t even know how I was going to get to this point, but I knew that I could – and I did. I didn’t have the skills, the sound, the look – and I still have so much further to go – but I knew that I had something, and I really believed that I could get somewhere.”

Vocally trained in classical music, X says people should view her songs as a personal journey toward discovering her identity.

“I’m a fragmented person,” she says. “I’m confused about who I truly am, and how much of me is pure… How much of me now was around when I was a kid, and how much has been informed by experience and pain. Obviously, I’m not the only person to have been through difficult times; it happens to everyone. For me, I’m confused about how much of who I am now has always been there. I just don’t have it figured out.

“Music is the way I’ve always made friends. It’s been the thing that has given me a voice, literally and symbolically. It’s been the way I get out my darker feelings. I don’t know where I’d be without music.”

Draper Street in downtown Toronto runs for just a short block, but it’s loaded with history: The majority of the street is made up of beautifully preserved Victorian row houses that date back to the 1880s. Brendan Canning has been living in one of them for the past 22 years, the lone constant resident in an abode he cheekily describes as “The House That Rock Built.”

His list of former roommates and regular couch surfers could fill up a JUNO Awards telecast. Members of Sum41, Esthero, Danko Jones, and a pre-Land of Talk Liz Powell are among the many musicians who’ve enjoyed Canning’s concierge services. And in his living room – where a piano abuts his sizable vinyl collection, and where there’s always an acoustic guitar at the ready on the sofa – he’s etched out the rough song sketches that get blown up into indie-rock epics with his band, Broken Social Scene.

But these days, when Canning walks his two dogs around the block, he sees a neighbourhood that’s changed dramatically since he and BSS co-founder Kevin Drew first joined forces in 1999. Where Draper Street was once a quaint sign of life in an otherwise desolate area dominated by warehouses and manufacturers, today the street feels like a fortress warding off the relentless influx of condo towers and charcuterie restaurants.

“Look at all the shit that’s happening around here,” says Canning as his dogs do their business. “Everything is getting torn down and built up. Ah, the sweet sound of cranes,” he adds, with sarcasm. It’s almost enough to make Canning feel like a stranger in his own town – which is sort of how his band feels re-entering the game after a six-year layoff.

“For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.” – Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene

When Broken Social Scene first broke out with their second album, 2002’s You Forgot It in People, its success provided a signal boost to its numerous affiliated acts, which include synth-rockers Metric, art-pop chanteuse Feist, and psych-jazz ensemble Do Make Say Think. These days, when homegrown artists like BADBADNOTGOOD can swiftly parlay YouTube buzz into worldwide festival bookings and celebrity collaborations, it’s hard to remember how disconnected Canada’s independent music scenes were from the global music apparatus at the dawn of the 2000s.

Brendan Canning

Brendan Canning. Photo: Erin Simkin Photography

Alongside peers like The New Pornographers and Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene helped smash the barriers that once prevented Canadian bands from crossing over to international audiences, while – through the formation of their Arts & Crafts imprint – carving out a space in the domestic music industry for artists operating in between DIY self-sufficiency and major-label beneficiary. It’s hard to imagine institutions like the Polaris Music Prize or Toronto radio station Indie88 existing without that surge.

But where Broken Social Scene were once touted as Toronto’s musical ambassadors, today the phrase “Toronto sound” has come to mean something very different – the austere hip-hop and R&B of Drake and The Weeknd, and after-hours future-soul of Majid Jordan and Charlotte Day Wilson.

Likewise, indie rock in general has drifted away from the collectivist orchestral chaos that BSS patented, toward more minimalist, synth-driven sounds attuned to contemporary Top 40 trends. In some respects, BSS helped lay the shifting groundwork for this evolution on tracks like “Pacific Theme” and “Hotel,” which loosened up indie rock to absorb dub, soul, and R&B influences. Still, Canning admits to some trepidation over where his band fits into the current musical landscape.

“We’re definitely a pre-Drake era band,” he muses. “And we haven’t released any new music in so long. Your friends say, ‘You guys, will be fine!’ Well, how the fuck do you know we’ll be fine?! For this new album, we needed to have a fresh launch, see how we can make things a little different.”

Having seen friends like The National and The War on Drugs rise to the top of indie-rock A-list over the past half-decade, Broken Social Scene have, for the first time, signed on with management – New York-based Red Light – outside the Arts & Crafts umbrella. And while the new Hug of Thunder re-unites all the key players that made You Forgot It in People a classic, it also re-formulates their chemistry with some new blood.

The album was recorded with veteran, Grammy-winning producer Joe Chiccarelli, whose credits include everyone from Frank Zappa and Journey to The White Stripes and The Strokes. And after filling in for the absent Feist and Emily Haines on tour after 2010, Ariel Engle – the wife of guitarist Andrew Whiteman – makes her proper BSS vocal debut with two of the album’s standout tracks: the stirring, celestial ballad “Gonna Get Better” and the delirious, tropical funk of “Stay Happy,” about which Canning is particularly enthused.

“Ariel grew up on ‘90s R&B,” he says, “and she just brings so much power and passion. She and Andrew brought ‘Stay Happy,’ but it definitely grew into something much more. Everyone added something really interesting, whether it’s as subtle as Kev’s [Kevin Drew’s] piano line, or Charles’ [Charles Spearin’s] guitar line, which got turned into a flute line. There’s reggae bass, there’s horns, and Ariel delivers a really great vocal. It’s a real nice leap for the band, because it sounds like Social Scene, but there’s just no fat to be trimmed.”

That concision is ultimately what distinguishes Hug of Thunder from its predecessors. On earlier BSS records, you could hear the sound-sculpting happen in real time – that process of seemingly random ambient motifs gradually coalescing into melodies and grooves. The songs on Hug of Thunder are as overstuffed as ever – “Vanity Pail Kids” manages to pack in an industrial drum groove, soul-revue brass stabs, dissonant guitar fuzz, a disco chorus, chopped-up house-diva vocal refrains, and background chatter – but they’re confined to tighter spaces, less a jumble of sounds than an orderly Tetris board of interlocking elements.

Take the lead single “Halfway Home,” for example. “That song got laboured over an awful lot,” Canning says. “The chorus goes into a first verse that doesn’t repeat, which goes into a refrain that doesn’t repeat, and another verse that’s based on a different idea than the first verse… The song sounds ‘single-ish,’ though I think Broken Social Scene’s idea of a single is different than a lot of radio programmers’ ideas of singles.”

But if BSS seem genetically incapable of ever conforming to the sounds of the times, they have a preternatural ability to tap into their emotional tenor. Their music doesn’t so much directly address the politics of the day as reflect our personal responses to them: anxiety and fear, yes, but also the fragile hope that we’ll make it through to better days. Certainly, a big reason why You Forgot It in People connected so deeply with fans was the environment into which it was released: a post-9/11 landscape fraught with looming threats, both local (SARS) and global (the Iraq war). The ensuing years have only further entrenched their belief that music is the only social media you need.

It’s that therapeutic quality that inspired Kevin Drew to corral BSS back into the studio following the November 2015 terrorist attack at the Bataclan in Paris. And their purpose became even more evident on May 23, 2017, when the band performed an emotionally-charged show in Manchester the night after Ariana Grande’s concert was bombed just a few blocks away. Whether the changes they’ve made, both musically and behind the scenes, lead to next-level success remains to be seen. For now, Canning is grateful that Broken Social Scene can still provide sanctuary for unsettled souls.

“It’s nice that we can still be relevant in some way, without being overly political about the hardened times we’re living in,” he says. “We can be the call-to-arms band you turn to for inspiration and joy… but doing our best to not pander to an anthemic, feel-good, Coca-Cola-ad vibe.”
Words & Music contributor Stuart Berman wrote the book on Broken Social Scene. Literally. You can buy it by clicking on the book cover below.

This Book Is Broken